ESTONIAN ACADEMY
PUBLISHERS
eesti teaduste
akadeemia kirjastus
The Yearbook of the Estonian Mother Tongue Society cover
The Yearbook of the Estonian Mother Tongue Society
Koer või Kuningas? Eesti perekonnanimede püsivusest; pp. 202–237
PDF | 10.3176/esa66.09

Author
Fred Puss
Abstract

Koer ‘dog’ or Kuningas ‘king’? Persistence of Estonian surnames

Four Estonian surnames with negative and four with positive connotation were researched using the genealogical method (2,416 name bearers) to study their development, changes and persistence until 1935 on an individual level and on a general level for analysis. General bestowal of surnames took place in Estonia in 1822–1835. Then it was a process aimed from up to down – name givers were mostly German landlords and clergymen. Many names with negative connotation were also bestowed, for instance in the present research Koer ‘dog’, Laisk ‘lazy’, Limukas ‘rainworm; snail’, Paks ‘fat’. Altogether 21 families had those names. Positive names (in this study Ilus ‘pretty’, Kuningas ‘king’, Tarkus ‘wisdom’, Truumees ‘faithful man’) appeared in 25 families. In some cases, the names also emerged after 1822–1835 as parallel names or in 1921 in Petseri county.

Negative names were in 75% of the researched cases the bestowed to lower peasant classes (farmhands and cottagers) and to smaller families or single persons (average 4.3 initial name bearers). Positive names were usually bestowed to higher peasant classes (farmers, schoolteachers, 75% of the researched cases) and to larger groups of people (11.9 average initial name bearers). In only 10% of the researched cases the negative name still exists today, as opposed to 52% of the positive names.

The most important factors in surname extinction were as follows (in order of substance).

1. Small amount of initial name bearers – 100% of researched names with one initial bearer became extinct (88% within fifty years) regardless of the connotation.

2. Later demographical reasons – higher class families had more children until the demographic transition which in Estonia took place around the turn of the 19th–20th centuries. This enabled positive names (as these were being given to higher class families) to spread more as the first half century was important for a surname to start spreading. A negative name was not a reason for poor fertility performance, but the latter was caused by lower social status, which was more often connected with negative names.

3. Name changes – 33% of all negative names underwent extinction through name change, mostly before the end of the 19th century. A few positive names also experienced name change. Of the now-extinct names, 47% of negative and 75% of positive names became extinct for demographic reasons. Thus, name change was the reason for the extinction of 37% of negative names, while for positive names the only major cause of extinction was demographic.

4. Individual reasons. Some families had higher than average child mortality rates even in higher classes. In small families, many factors that did not affect bigger families could be fatal to surname spread, like a larger number of daughters or generations of men facing World War I and II (fathers and sons), also place of living (smaller infant and child mortality in state estates) and again social status (higher classes had more options to avoid the 80%-fatal military service until 1874).

In the 1920s and 1930s a campaign of Estonianizing surnames took place. This also opened the possibility of changing ill-sounding names. No names from the present research became completely extinct during that campaign, but in one case 27 bearers of the name Laisk ‘lazy’ changed their name together in 1922 to Laaneväli ‘forest plain’. Only one member of the family (the widowed mother of some name changers) did not change her name and died in 1941 as the last name bearer.

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